JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Imagine trying to exit the Main Street bridge only to find yourself slamming on the brakes to avoid hitting a panhandler who is standing in the middle of the roadway while holding a cup and asking for money.
That’s what happened Wednesday morning while I was driving into downtown.
It wasn’t clear if the man who was asking for money was homeless, but his presence in the middle of the roadway, while the light was green, presented a danger to both himself and other motorists.
I spoke with News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson about my experience and how worried I was about nearly hitting or running over this man.
“Panhandling and begging for money in the streets is very dangerous because they are in and out of traffic, and most times, they have nothing that distinguishes them like a fluorescent vest or something that stands out,” Jefferson said.
A person caught panhandling in downtown Jacksonville faces fines up to $500 and up to 90 days in jail if they are repeat offenders, but News4Jax has learned from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office that most people who are caught usually only get a warning.
According to JSO crime data, within the past 12 months, there have been a total of 135 calls for service involving panhandling downtown. A great number of those calls involved panhandling closer to the riverfront.
Also in the past 12 months, as the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold, as many as 22 million jobs have been lost in the U.S., Business Insider reported. Layoffs soared 17.6% to 1.9 million in November driven mostly by job cuts at restaurants, bars and hotels, which more than doubled.
Homeless shelters in downtown Jacksonville offer an array of services to help people who have fallen on hard times. Those services range from offering shelter and food to helping people find employment through workforce programs.
News4Jax spoke with Paul Stasi who is the executive director of City Rescue Mission. It’s an organization that offers a multitude of services to help people who have fallen on bad times.
Those services include shelter, food, help with substance abuse and workforce development to help people find jobs.
Stasi said the workforce development program focuses on life skills and job-readiness skills.
“This includes everything it takes to get a job and keep a job. Save money and budgeting. Everything we all have to do on a regular basis to be self-sustaining,” Stasi said.
But the workforce development program goes even further.
“We help them get a job and save money. We even have it set up to where they have a bank account with us because some people have bank issues,” Stasi said.
I asked Stasi if his organization has come across people who know about the workforce program but chose to not take part in, thinking it may be easier to ask people for money.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but some chose to do that and that would be more from the panhandling perspective and what we’ve found is that a lot of panhandlers are not homeless. They might have a room somewhere or maybe even an apartment and they’re not homeless,” Stasi said.
He also said there are homeless people downtown who do panhandle because they need help but are too afraid to go into a shelter for fear of contracting COVID-19. Some people who are homeless who panhandle may suffer from mental problems or substance abuse.
“Some people look at what they can do to survive, and they choose to panhandle that way. I can’t talk for them because we’re a service provider that focuses on helping the homeless. But I do think a lot of people who are driving by them assume they’re homeless and could have that negative perspective of homelessness,” Stasi said.
Here is a list of organizations that work with Jacksonville’s homeless: